Why transformational leadership is the right model for corrections

Transformational leadership is an empowering theory of leadership that is a stark contrast to our standard paramilitary model

It is unfortunate to read about events in correctional institutions such as the Clinton Correctional Facility escape in 2015, the Baltimore City Detention Center scandal in 2013 and the New Orleans House of Detention jail video of inmates proudly displaying alcohol, drugs and a loaded semi-automatic handgun.

We all know – or should know by now – what happened in these facilities.

At the Clinton, New York Correctional Facility, a civilian worker and a veteran correctional officer allowed themselves to be manipulated by two inmates doing life for murder. This resulted in an escape and a long, expensive manhunt.

Lieutenants, sergeants, corporals and all supervisors on the front line should practice transformational leadership.
Lieutenants, sergeants, corporals and all supervisors on the front line should practice transformational leadership. (Photo/Pixabay)

In Baltimore, the Black Guerilla Family ran the jail, resulting in inmates having sex with several correctional officers and contraband trafficking. The ringleader fathered several children with female COs.

Finally, the inmate “show and tell” video from the New Orleans Jail had the mayor, other government officials and taxpayers all shaking their heads.

No matter if I was in corrections or a civilian – and a taxpayer – I would be asking, “Where was the supervision?”

Supervisors have to show up

Supervision in a correctional facility does not start with the top down; in my opinion, it starts from the bottom up.

If corporals, sergeants and lieutenants do not closely supervise COs at the first-line levels, the inmates will have a field day.

The effectiveness of security staff in your facility is only as good as the supervisors on the frontline. Depending on your agency rank structure, they can be those with stripes or those with bars on the collar (lieutenants). If they are sitting in the control center or in the office, and view their shift as one long coffee break, taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth.

Look at the aforementioned examples – some supervisors were not doing their job.

The Clinton inmates received smuggled tools and contraband in order to tunnel their way out; the Baltimore jail gang leaders did not have to worry about COs turning them in; and someone was definitely not on the ball in New Orleans.

True, the corrupt COs and civilian made the choice to go rogue, but their supervisors should be held accountable to a degree as well.

Line staff supervision is complex and critical

Line staff supervisors are the foundation of jail or prison supervision. They play a complex and critical role.

Line supervisors walk a fine line between two areas. The first is keeping a close eye on what subordinates are doing and giving them guidance if necessary. The second involves them taking a step back to give COs a sense of independence, while testing them to see if they can handle day-to-day situations when dealing with inmates. Such supervision requires a considerate and mature personality. Transformational leadership may be the best approach.

This leadership style has three components:

  • It is an empowering theory of leadership that is a stark contrast to the standard paramilitary model so widely used in our nation’s correctional facilities.
  • Employees are inspired to perform more professionally and do great work through the examples set by leadership.
  • Line staff will improve performance through positive motivation instead of negative motivation.

Let’s apply this to the correctional facility. Some supervisors with stripes and bars may compare corrections to being in the military; however, their approaches may be abrasive.

Line COs admire supervisors who look and act professional and, as a result, they appreciate them as good supervisors. These supervisors are the ones who inspire confidence when they come on the tier, relieve a CO for a few minutes, or offer to help out and stay over when staffing is short.

Line staff COs who work well under these supervisors are the future. As supervisors retire or move on in their careers, an agency wants good line COs to be promoted to replace them.

According to Michael Pittaro, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University, who presented on this topic at the New Jersey Chapter: American Correctional Association in April 2016, there are four ‘I’s in transformational leadership.[1] These principles can help build a good line staff. They are:

1. Idealized influence

The supervisor serves as a positive, ideal role model and is one line COs like to follow. Line COs admire a good lieutenant, sergeant or corporal, especially ones who care deeply about the well-being of their subordinates. Early in my jail career, a corporal took me aside and taught me things that stayed with me throughout my time in corrections.

2. Inspirational motivation

Transformational leadership inspires and motivates. Line staff want to please this type of line supervisor as they begin to realize the workplace is better for everyone when folks are motivated to do a good job.

3. Individualized consideration

Transformational leaders are genuinely concerned about the feelings, needs and problems of their subordinates. This is especially true in regard to stress and burnout. They do not get too personal or intrusive, but they do take the time to get to know their COs and talk to them if they are stressed out or they suspect that things are not all right. They recognize the agency has a large investment in every CO under their supervision, and want to get the best out of them.

4. Intellectual stimulation

Transformational leaders challenge their officers to be innovative and creative. If there is a problem with operations or an inmate, transformational leaders ask the line COs for their thoughts, their opinions and their solutions. This approach connects the line supervisors and the line COs. This is also good for staff development.

A good lieutenant, sergeant or corporal encourages COs to attend webinars, seminars and academy or in-house trainings. They want their officers to develop their skills and not stagnate. They realize the corrections field is constantly changing, and that it is important to keep up with information on new policies, skills, how to manage special populations and inmate rights.

Lieutenants, sergeants, corporals and all supervisors on the front line should practice transformational leadership. It will allow them to develop and maintain important connections with COs on the front line.


1. Pittaro M. Transformational Leadership:  Improving the Culture of CorrectionsConference presentation, New Jersey Chapter:  American Correctional Association, April 2016.

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